Updated: Jan 31, 2022
My husband and I watched a movie last night, one of those movies about a couple losing each other and about the woman, in the process, finding new possibilities. Yay for free empowered women!
How did their marriage go bad? The characters’ understanding of what happened was that they’d been taking each other for granted.
They did that thing—taking each other for granted—kept on doing it, and the marriage died. So when the guy had an affair with a much younger woman—men are pigs!—he wasn’t killing a live marriage. He was putting a bullet into a corpse.
So I have an idea. Let’s stop pretending that you and I know what the hell “taking each other for granted” even means. We all kind of know what it means and we all kind of know that bad things come of it, but if we really did know what it meant, we wouldn’t do it, right? I mean, we know you have to feed the gerbils, right? So we do feed them!
And yet, it seems, we all do end up taking each other for granted!!
The problem is that when we are busy taking each other for granted it doesn’t look or feel as though we’re doing anything wrong. It’s like you have a plant. You look at the plant. You know not to overwater the plant. You look at it every day, and it doesn’t seem discolored or wilting. It seems fine. So it looks as though you don’t have to do anything. And so you wait for a signal that you do have to do something.
Now this may work for lots of plants. It doesn’t work in relationships. Life can go on with me and my husband, and between the noise of all the things we’re busy with and the hypnotic drone of our routine we may well never notice that we ourselves are wilting or turning yellow, much less notice it in the other.
And that’s because between the exhaustion that comes with hard work and the numbness of routine we can’t and don’t make it a priority to give time, attention, and affection to each other. We live like people sitting next to each other in an airplane during an emergency. The oxygen masks come down, and we put our own masks on first. Always. It’s just that by the time we get around to our partners they already seem to have their mask on, so it doesn’t seem as though they need anything from us.
And eventually you get the creeping distance and coolness of two people each taking care of themselves, not each other. What isn’t happening?
Demonstrations of interest in the other.
Initiation of lovemaking.
Statements of what the other means to you.
Suggestions for doing things together.
Acknowledgments of the two of you as “us.”
Now I’ve been talking about how hard it is for this to spontaneously bubble up given the lives we lead. But I don’t really like the word “work” either. Where’s the work in any of this? To me it’s work cleaning out the kitty litter box. Any of the things on the above list are pleasanter, easier, and take less time. Where’s the work in it?
The “work,” if you can call it that, is nothing more than rising up out of our slumber and doing it. It’s the “work” of remembering to pop a letter in a mailbox you pass every day on your way to the office.
What's more, these aren't attitudes you have to acquire, understandings you have to wrap your mind around, or changes you have to make to your personality. These are just little things you do.
And the main thing is the risk you’re taking. It’s like a plant that seems green and healthy and alive, and then one morning you look at it and it’s fallen over, all the leaves turned brown.
Without snapping out of it, by continuing in your state of doing nothing, there slowly develops a sense that there’s no there there in your relationship. This is the soil out of which rises the realization that you’re living like roommates. That your marriage is just an arrangement, and not an inevitable or necessary one either. Do you want that?
The movie I talked about at the beginning was Revenge of the Middle-aged Woman, starring the wonderful Christine Lahti. The images here are from the legendary 1978 movie An Unmarried Woman, directed by the great Paul Mazursky and starring the luminous Jill Clayburgh.
And in case you want to know what I think a useless therapist is like, that would be Penelope Russianoff, an actual therapist, playing Jill Clayburgh’s therapist in the movie. She does, and says, almost nothing, while managing to purvey the illusion that she possesses the wellspring of all wisdom, none of which she actually shares. She is the epitome of one of the major reasons people drop their therapists in real life: “I wasn’t getting anything out of it. She mostly just listened and, really, contributed very little that was useful. I ended up spending money and time just to hear myself talk.”